Bellamy Young Watched a Loved One Suffer Cirrhosis of the Liver—Here’s What She’s Sharing
The Scandal actress opens up about her experience witnessing a disease that affects 30 million Americans: "We just didn’t know that it was possible that a disease that starts in your liver could have an impact on your brain and your behavior," she says.
Bellamy Young might be most famous for playing President Melody “Mellie” Grant on Shonda Rhimes’ hit show Scandal, but when it comes to discussing politics, don’t expect her to hit the debate floor. “I am conflict-averse, so political activism often scares me,” she says. But health activism? Count her in. “I think information is power, and I just want everybody to live the longest, happiest, healthiest life they can.”
The 53-year-old actress recently teamed up with pharmaceutical company Salix to get the word out about liver disease, which affected her father when she was a teenager. After watching him suffer cognitive and mobility symptoms, she’s passionate about helping others look out for symptoms before the disease progresses.
The Healthy @Readers Digest: In recent years, especially because of the pandemic, there’s more open conversation about lifestyle choices, like food and alcohol consumption. You’re here to talk about cirrhosis, a severe liver disease that your father experienced.
Bellamy Young: Cirrhosis is a form of severe chronic liver disease. What my dad was eventually diagnosed with is hepatic encephalopathy (HE). Thirty million people in America are affected by liver disease, which is so many people, and 5.5 [million] have severe chronic liver disease. Up to 80% of them may be diagnosed with hepatic encephalopathy.
We just didn’t know that it was possible that a disease that starts in your liver could have an impact on your brain and your behavior. We didn’t know what to look for. We just didn’t know anything. After his cirrhosis diagnosis, we missed a lot of signals until he was really far progressed in the disease.
It happens that toxins build up in your liver, they back up in your bloodstream and eventually your brain gets cloudy and it can affect your cognition and your mobility and a number of other issues that are very clear symptoms. So once he got his diagnosis, he was very far progressed and they didn’t really have suggestions for us for treatment.
But nowadays, so much has changed and we know so much more about the disease and we can catch it earlier. So I’m so proud to have partnered with Salix. They have a wonderful website called understandinghe.com. And on that, people can really learn there’s a symptom tracker and there are stories of people who have gone through this and checklists for talking to your doctor.
The Healthy: So what type of symptoms should people look out for, and what do you think could have helped had you known?
Bellamy Young: First of all, I was a teenager, so I was the worst version of myself. Changes in the smell of their breath [can be] an early symptom. And I just sort of thought, Oh, now he’s drinking in the daytime. Eye rolls. And he’d forget to pick me up at school, and I’m like, Oh, great. It was all about me at that point.
But he also developed a hand flutter, which I just thought was him being weird. He was an accountant. He was a CPA for the state auditors, North Carolina State IRS, and really good with numbers. And the numbers started to not make sense. The thing that got us was he one day couldn’t find his way home from work. And that’s when we went back to the doctor. We were just like, what’s happening? Is it a brain tumor?
The Healthy: What did the rest of his journey look like, and what helped him once he was finally diagnosed?
Bellamy Young: We got to my dad pretty late. Sadly, he did develop lung cancer soon thereafter and lung cancer is what took him from us. So more progression is what happened to my dad. More confusion, disorientation, anger, irritability. We weren’t able to resolve it for him.
The Healthy: You’ve been really proactive in talking about health for a long time. Was that inspired by observing your father, and realizing how important health is?
Bellamy Young: I do think losing someone early makes you really aware of what a gift life is, and also having sickness in your home makes you aware of how fundamental community is. I did a lot of therapy to work through my shame and guilt about being a jerk when he passed, and I never want anybody else to feel alone or stigmatized by a disease that might be happening to them.
The Healthy: What does health look like in your life? What do nutrition and self-care look like to you? I’ve also read that you suffered migraines your whole life.
Bellamy Young: I have suffered with migraines, and that’s been a wild journey. Now I’m much more aware of what causes them, what kind of stress for sure. And red wine, oh my gosh. So I try to be vigilant, prophylactically, avoiding the migraine, staying hydrated. And I finally found a medicine that works for me.
I’ve been vegan since 1988. I am still vegan and happily so. Right now, a sort of modified keto vegan, which is agreeing with me, but makes me no fun to eat out at restaurants with.
I’m 53, so I’m just trying to be aware of the changes in my life that are either facing me or staring me down. I don’t hate exercise as much as I thought I did. I sweat a lot and I hate to sweat. But I started getting my 150 [high-]intensity minutes a week, and it’s made such a difference in my life. It really has made me very, very happy. But to your point, self-care is the thing I need to be most vigilant about. I’ve walked five miles a day for nine years. Right now I’m on day 328. I’m trying to make it a full year of walking five miles a day.
The Healthy: Where do you walk?
Bellamy Young: Sometimes I count my runs on the treadmill as my steps, so I’m like, “Yay, that took way less time today.” I’m in New York, so you’re going to walk everywhere anyway, but I’m not above pacing in my apartment. But you remind me, it’s the self-care that I’ve had to really be vigilant about lately, so I just got my meditation practice back. I’ve let it lapse for a while, but it changes everything. And sleep hygiene. Just make sure everybody gets their sleep and gets good sleep, especially facing menopause. That’s a really big part. Let your brain get washed. Let your body refresh.
The Healthy: You mentioned you’re 53 now, which I’m sure you hear a lot, is incredible. What changes have you noticed and what has aging been like?
Bellamy Young: It’s so interesting, isn’t it, to be a woman, to have this parallel narrative in your brain all the time about the expectation of your physical appearance?
The Healthy: Yes.
Bellamy Young: I have this terrible furrow line that I’ve hated all my life, and I’ve tried Botox in there twice in the last ten years. I can’t. I make a living with my face. I tell stories with my face, and if it doesn’t move, then I feel like a prisoner in my body, like I can’t do my job. So that’s not a great option for me, although I’m in favor of people doing what makes them feel best, because I want us all to have our confidence. And as women, especially young women that get hit so hard on social media, the indoctrination is so early.
But for me lately, I tell you it gets better because you’re still young, but you get more deeply rooted in yourself. And so I find that my decisions are more based on my needs and who I am, instead of on some FOMO or what they’re doing or Instagram, that kind of thing. And for that, I am grateful because that’s the only path that leads to where you want to be.
And it’s in terms of hormones, it’s a hormone changing time. So I’m trying to learn all I can to get ready for that. And being vegan, I do think I’ve missed 30-plus years of hormones in my meat. So I do feel like I’m having a little bit of a smoother ride than I see some of my dear friends suffering with. But I know I’m not going to get out scot-free.
The Healthy: Menopause is interesting because it’s one of the taboos that I’ve noticed in the last few years is becoming less taboo—and a lot of celebrities are launching menopause products and coming out and saying, “My body’s changing.”
Bellamy Young: That’s the thing, going back to all of this health activism, I think that we’re only as sick as our secrets. We’re all going through it. Fifty percent of the population is going to go through menopause if we are lucky enough to live that long. So the more we talk about it in front of the men and with our women, the better we all are because it affects everybody. The men have to be around us when we live through it.
The Healthy: Absolutely. You got married a few years ago to a percussionist. Congratulations! What’s married life been like?
Bellamy Young: I love him so much, and I like him, too, so that helps. I never thought I’d get married. And we did it because he is Portuguese and lives in London and we had COVID-ed together and he hadn’t been able to work at all. I’ve been lucky to be able to work straight through COVID, but there was no live music.
He got this job in London and it was sort of the only way he could come and go is if we got married and we were like, yeah. And it’s been the best. I love saying my husband. I love it in a lot of ways, but mostly because he’s the best person in the world.